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ROCK MUSIC’S ALTERNATIVE UNIVERSE: THE SIXTIES

In history, music on July 25, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Popular music as it was shaping going into 1962 promised to follow up the original rock’n’roll explosion of 1955-57 with a heady infusion of power and sophistication from many sources. Pop music created for the youth market was already being called ‘Rock’ as short for rock’n’roll by Billboard, Cash Box and other trade publications. (Record World, Crawdaddy and Rolling Stone would come later in the Sixties.)

According to the usual economic cycles, and specifically due to the cheap Japanese pocket transistor radios entering the market, record sales had come down since their historical peak in the 1957 calendar year. By that time a brigade of teen idols had infiltrated the purity of Rock and broadened it to “rock and roll”, expanding overall sales thanks to Pat Boone, Tab Hunter, Tommy Sands, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell et al promoted by Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and Connie Francis, Brenda Lee and other teens dependent on Brill Building songwriters in New York.

In contrast to most of these, in the second half of 1960 and increasingly through 1961 strong Rock performers such as Lloyd Price, Hank Ballard & the Midniters (‘Finger Poppin’ Time’), Chubby Checker (riding on a remake of Hank’s ‘The Twist’) and vocal groups the Drifters and the Impressions, among others, brought the energy of r&b to mainstream radio. Many others celebrated lesser degress of success but contributed their influence to the mix.

Hank Ballard: too black for a superstar in 1960

By the end of 1961, Chubby Checker a transcendent figure bringing The Twist as a dance to middle-agers around the world, was joined at no.1 by strong r&b entries in the Marcels’ ‘Blue Moon’, Ernie K. Doe’s ‘Mother-in-Law’, Gary US Bonds’ ‘Quarter to Three’, Bobby Lewis’s ‘Tossing and Turning’, Ray Charles’ ‘Hit the Road Jack’, the Marvelettes’ ‘Please Mr Postman’, the Tokens’ ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ — and growling white boys Roy Orbison, Del Shannon and Dion breaking away from the teen idol stereotype.

Control freak Phil Spector had written and produced for Atlantic and as a hands-on boutique independent brought popped-up black r&b into the top 10 with girl groups the Crystals (’62) incorporating Darlene Love, and the Ronettes (’63), each with a string of a half-dozen classic hits and only stopped by the arrival of the Beatles and the summary takeover of the airwaves by raucous male groups and accompanying dissing of girl acts.

In mid 1962 came the initial big hits of two white American groups, the Four Seasons based in New York and recrafting Doo Wop, and the Beach Boys of Los Angeles, likewise but purveying it from a foundation of adapted, advanced rock’n’roll. From their start with the double ‘Surfin’ Safari’/ ‘409’ the Beach Boys were judged to be broadly talented enough to produce bestselling albums — the first such teen group to do so. In 1963 not only the Beach Boys but James Brown and Stevie Wonder had number one albums. The revolution was on…

Both the Four Seasons and Beach Boys recognised the primacy of Black input into modern American music (predicted generations earlier by classical Czech composer Dvorak as its proper course) and kept it in the mainstream as its closest white interpreters until blues-centred English groups the Animals, Rolling Stones and Kinks arrived in the big time late in 1964, bringing the most purist Blues oriented stylings since the mid Fifties.

By then Spector and the Righteous Brothers had arguably perfected the ‘softer’ American r&b, now called Soul, in the form of ‘You’ve Lost Lovin’ Feelin”, leaving James Brown and Aretha Franklin to take up the more spontaneous, shouting form of African-based Soul — supported by South African diva Miriam Makeba (‘Pata Pata’). In the meantime, Motown had usurped the positions of the Four Seasons and Beach Boys in r&b-tinged pop, rendering secondary white groups such as the Kingsmen and Paul Revere & the Raiders superfluous but leaving the field open for the likes of the Rascals and Three Dog Night, bestselling white groups during 1966-69.

The English strand developed in a more open field, though never reaching the singular instrumental virtuosity or vision of Blues master Jimi Hendrix — through The Who, Cream, and the Yardbirds morphing into Led Zeppelin in 1969.

Given this, the Beatles-led British Invasion centred on Music Hall, show tunes and pablum-rock, offered not much more than a weenie/preteen alternative. Until the Beatles went folk in 1965, baroque in 1966, and electronic in 1967 strongly directed by Bob Dylan, record producer George Martin and others. Mostly, clustered around the top of Billboard with the Beatles, the British were the entirely expendable Herman’s Hermits, Dave Clark Five, Freddie & the Dreamers, Peter & Gordon, Chad & Jeremy, Gerry & the Pacemakers…

The tragedy is that this distraction (tolerated as a novelty by serious musicians 1964-66) from the main event has been taken seriously by historians ever since.

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